When a school district in New York state gives up thousands of dollars in federal and state reimbursement to do its own thing, you know there's a problem with whatever that money was going toward.
In the case of three local school districts, the latest being Schalmont High School, the problem is with a federal lunch program designed to fight obesity. The district is considering opting out of the program for high schoolers, saying kids weren't buying the lunches, the portions were too small and the teens were wasting food by not eating what was on their plates.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 imposed very strict restrictions on school lunches as it relates to number of vegetables and fruits that must be available; ingredients allowed; serving sizes; calories; fat, sugar and sodium content; and other factors. These are all good guidelines, but they may be too strict for the reality of the appetites of today's high school students.
If you've ever had a high school student, or remember being one, you'll recall that they are virtual bottomless pits when it comes to food. The kids who are active seem to burn off calories faster than they can take them in. It's a good problem to have when you're young. But there's no doubt that obesity is a big problem among our kids. And it's legitimate for government to try to curb it, especially in areas over which they have direct daily control, such as in schools.
So if you've designed a lunch program for high school students that doesn't give them enough calories to suit their needs, and they're opting out of the program and doing what they want, then what good is it? As Schalmont is seeing, it's certainly not worth $12,000 in federal and state money.
The high school is not abandoning good nutrition. That would be irresponsible. It's just tweaking the program to make it more in keeping with actual student practice. For instance, the high school is expanding the food options available. Portions will get a little bigger. They'll be adding protein-rich food to the salad bar, including meats and nuts. And they'll be offering vegetarian options. Yes, cookies will be available. But so will low-calorie teas and vitamin waters, prohibited under new regulations that take effect in the fall.
The nutritional lunch program will remain in place for elementary and middle school students, where it's a little easier to get them to eat their meals and a more effective age group in which to build healthy eating habits.
To make up for the lost federal and state revenue, the district will raise the cost of lunches from $2.25 to as much as $4. That's a pretty significant jump. If you have three kids in high school, all eating lunch every day, your monthly bill will go up about $25 a week. But kids don't have to spend that much. And if they weren't buying the lunches anyway, where's the loss? Still, district officials should work harder to keep the cost increases down as much as possible. If kids can't afford the new meals, they're not going to buy them and the district will have the same problem supporting the lunch program in the future as it does now.
In abandoning the federal lunch guidelines, the district has an even greater obligation to enhance its message about healthy eating habits, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school. It shouldn't go back to the old days, when districts would sell any snack on school grounds, no matter how fattening or non-nutritious, just to supplement the lunch menu prices. Moderation of the nutritional offerings, not abdication, is called for here.
The changes in Schalmont aren't yet a done deal. Parents have until Friday, August 22, to offer their comments to the district. The board members' email addresses are on the district's website, www.schalmont.org/boe. Click on "Meet the Board." And there's a school board meeting on August 18.
If you have a comment on the lunch plan, the new higher prices, or the decision to forego the reimbursement, let district officials know before it's locked in for the new school year.
It's your kids. And it's their health.